Those trained in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis will learn that the first kind of language to be taught to their client is the mand. A mand (think short for “de-mand”) occurs when a learner asks for anything in their environment, missing items, actions or activity.
But first for the mand to occur successfully, you have to discover the learner’s interests and pair yourself with reinforcement. They have to understand that listening to you and communicating with you will be a catalyst for positive change in their lives. And to be fair, we all work for incentives and reinforcers. I go to work to get a paycheck, others will eat healthier to lose weight (negative reinforcement), and kids will complete chores to earn their allowance.
For example, consider this scenario. You’re at home and your mom asks you to come to the table. You comply for lots of reasons. One, there’s usually food that’s provided once you come to the table (and food is a super powerful reinforcer). You also have (hopefully) a history of positive reinforcement with your mom. She’s raised you, given you food and shelter for years, and supported you. Now conversely, imagine if you’re at home and a stranger walks in and tells you to “come to the table.” Most likely you’re not going to listen, have several questions for this stranger in your house, and react rather negatively.
The same can go for our kids who are first starting ABA. They’re put in situations at home, at a clinic, or in their community with strangers they haven’t met before who are now trying to place demands on them as someone they don’t know and trust yet. This is why pairing is so important – they learn to understand that listening to you is going to gain them access to all sorts of reinforcements!
There are often two complaints when new staff are getting to know their learner….
I don’t know what they like!
Totally understandable, and your learner might not be super sure of what they are interested in either. When this happens, you have 2 options. One, you can just follow your learner around to see what different toys and things they approach in their environment, and go off of that behavior. Secondly, make sure to keep engaging with the learner by what we call “contriving motivation.” This basically means engaging with what you might want them to play with and showing them how to play with it.
Some learners might just not be interested in something because they don’t know what it does. If you hand them a closed container of bubbles, they might not be as interested in playing with them. But if you open the container, blow some bubbles, hold their fingers up to pop the bubbles, this activity is going to be a lot more interesting and engaging.
They don’t like anything!
Every learner (and every human) is reinforced by SOMETHING. Otherwise, we wouldn’t exhibit any behaviors at all (google “dead man test” to learn more). Remember that a reinforcer is anything that increases the behavior – even if playing with a toy perpetuates itself for the learner to keep interacting with that specific toy.
Their interests might be super limited like dropping things, certain songs, or specific parts of a toy. Once you recognize that, you can pair that one limited reinforcer to other toys. Play the songs they like while they inspect new toys, find toys that include things being dropped (e.g. elefun, kerplunk), or give them their favorite candy as you prompt them through playing with play doh.
They don’t like me!
I know, not a super “behavioral” definition but remember – never ever EVER EVER stop pairing! You’ll see your client several times a week (if not every day or several times a day), and you want to build a positive rapport with them. If you’re spending lots of time with them mitigating different problem behaviors, neither you and your learner are going to be in a good place to effectively learn. It’s always okay to take a step back and re-pair (pun not intended) to be able to have more effective sessions in the future. Think about it from their perspective – would you want to learn from a teacher that you had way more negative associations with and almost nothing felt fun and positive?
Ultimately, pairing is so important to be able to let learners have positive relationships with the other people in their life, as well as understand that learning is fun and helpful, and ultimately benefits them. We always want to teach our kids skills to better help them access more of their world.